La Asociación Nuestros Ahijados, Guatemala: Volunteering with children in poverty

Organization: La Asociación Nuestros Ahijados, through God's Child Project


Location: Antigua, Guatemala

Volunteer date: June 2015

Story and photos by Annie Phillips from the USA


Background: I am sixteen years old and live in Charlottesville, Virginia. I have wanted to immerse myself in Spanish and help others for a while and when I stumbled upon a program which had both of these aspects, I decided to sign up.  I will travel to Antigua, Guatemala with my mother from June 9th-19th. We are associated with the God’s Child Project, which is a program designed to break the chains of poverty. We will be building a house for a family in need and participating in other volunteer work. We will stay with a middle class Guatemalan family. This is all I know, so I am taking a leap of faith. I have taken six years of Spanish in school and can communicate, but I am not fluent.

June 10th, 2015 6:45am

This is our first night in Guatemala. We arrived to the homestay around 10pm last night, which felt very late because of the time change from Virginia (-2 hours). The flight from Dallas to Guatemala City was filled with Spanish so we felt a little out of place. When we were descending, the city looked extremely foreign, including the small shacks extending into long lines. In customs, they paid no attention to us. Our guide from the program, Hector Hugo, picked us up, along with a driver, and spoke to us in some broken English. The ride home consisted of extreme culture shock. The city was very interesting and different from anything that I had seen before. Everything is built right on the road, and there are little to no traffic rules. Motorcycles weaved in and out of cars on the middle line and drove much faster than we were. The cars are mostly all beaten up with a few exceptions. One kid was riding down the road standing on the outside edge of a car. Shops were much smaller and darker than the ones in America and graffiti covered everything. We stopped at a drive thru for water and I couldn’t understand the worker at all. When we were closer to Antigua we passed many homes made of scrap material such as old metal, leaves, plastic, trees, and one even used shopping carts as a wall. We saw a dog on the side of the road that must have been hit by a car and was limping and our driver just honked at him, which made me sad because he obviously needed help. The roads closer to the homestay were skinny, cobblestone, and had lots of speed bumps. The house we are staying at has a driveway that services about 20 houses that are all attached like a small village. The lady, Dora Luz, had plants covering her front porch.  It was drizzling when we arrived, but not pouring like the IPhone weather app had anticipated.

June 10th, 2015 8:50pm

This morning we woke up at 6:30. I took a quick shower but it was cold and I was extra careful because the shower head is electric (it heats the water as it passes through it) and could have electrocuted me if I had touched it. Another different thing in the bathroom is that toilet paper cannot be flushed which was hard to remember. At 7:45 we started our tour at the Nuestros Ahjidados center, the branch of the God’s Child Project in Antigua. At first no one was giving us directions and I began to get frustrated and questioned my purpose there. We met some other groups that were much bigger than ours, who had been there for a couple of days already. After confusion, we gathered in the chapel with another group and one of head men lead an opening ceremony. He asked us to close our eyes and picture being a mother or father and looking into our house with many holes in the roof, walls made of sugar cane and plastic wrap, and a dirt floor. Then he said to imagine looking up at the sky and seeing storm clouds, knowing that you, your children and all your belongings would be wet for the next four to five days. Then he says, “Now look through the door of your house in America.” Then, I knew why I was there. It was humbling to realize how many people here are living in such bad conditions. We toured the center, which is covered in beautiful gardens, waterfalls, and buildings. On the site, there is a school for pre-k through sixth grade, a medical clinic, a dentist, a psychologist, a lawyer (who takes on child support cases), playgrounds, and a mal-nutrition center. After a lunch of peanut butter and bread, we worked in the mal-nutrition center. The babies were adorable, but so small and underdeveloped for their ages. One of the girls- Angela- was two and a half years old but looked less than a year, and could not talk or walk. We got to hold the babies, feed them their bottles, and get them ready for bed. They live in the center and some of the mothers come to visit weekly. We returned to the host family for dinner-tortillas, beans, rice, guacamole, tomato soup, and bread. Then our guide, Hector, took us to a crepe restaurant called Luna del Miel. I shared a blackberry crepe with my mom and it was yummy. Hector is very interesting. He does not speak much English, but likes to talk slowly to me in Spanish. He has worked at the program for ten years and lives with his mom down the road from it. We returned to the house, passing some sick looking dogs with tumors. In the house there are two other groups staying there with us. Two French siblings are learning to speak Spanish while they are there, and two American seminary students are attending church related events and Spanish lessons while here. We learned a new French card game called “Carta”. Dora Luz and her husband have four grown kids, who visit often with their children. In one day, three of her grandchildren and two of her sons came over. Some of them ate dinner with us and some just talked with Dora Luz. She lives ten minutes away from all of her children and sees them more than weekly. She prays that she can be the glue that holds her family together because family is the most important thing. Their sense of family is incredible. One of the seminarians, Austin, is insightful about life. He believes that truly anything is possible and he can make a difference. He explained how he doesn’t know how to handle people who make poor decisions besides by praying for them, although he explained this more eloquently than I wrote it. Everyone in town says hello or good morning or how are you, but the amount of whistles makes me a little uncomfortable. I guess blonde hair isn’t seen often in Antigua. We met four girls from Penn State who are delivering stoves to seventy-five different families tomorrow so they can cook healthily. It didn’t rain today!

June 11th, 2015 8:45 pm

Today we started building the house. It is about twenty-five minutes away from where we are staying and we rode there in the back of a rickety pickup truck. The neighborhood where we are building is unreal. Dogs run around everywhere and have group fights. They are not very tame. Most of the parents were at work when we were there but the children of all ages are roaming around. They don’t understand that I can’t comprehend their speedy Spanish and I wonder if they do not know that other languages exist. One girl gave my mom and I hugs and asked to help us shovel dirt into a wheelbarrow. We laid the foundation of three layers of cinderblocks all day. The workers spoke a lot of Spanish that I could not understand so I felt uncomfortable. I had to dig deep to continue working because I was very tired and dirty and house building is not my forte. For lunch I discovered some cookies called Chikis that gave me some more energy to finish out the day. The family that we are building for is a mother and her four children, a dog, and a cat. The children attend half days of school, which is normal in Guatemala, and the rest of their time is spent playing with other kids or cleaning from what I can tell. They have a kitchen with a dirt floor and a metal roof with a wood fire that they use to cook. Their old house has two beds, one desk, and shelves. The women carry water and bags of food on their heads though their neighborhood and all of the water that they use has to be carried home. It is crazy how simple their lives are, yet everyone is cheerful and polite. There is a store window where they can buy candy and soda. I noticed that although they are all healthy, they are heavy in the stomach. I am guessing that it is because of the lack of nutritious calories. I figured out how to have a hot shower when we returned home and then napped until dinner. We had plantains, tamales, pasta, beans, and bread. After dinner we bought ice cream at a small window near the house for less than a dollar, and watched some men play soccer on a basketball court. I helped the French boy with his Spanish homework and then talked with Dora Luz and her grandson Ivan. He is eighteen and attends university for architecture. He is bilingual and has studied English for the past ten years. Today it sprinkled for about thirty minutes but that is all.  They have a pet dove that has two tiny babies that howl all night! This day was hard physically and mentally but I am glad that I can help this family and I need to keep that in mind. Tomorrow we are building all day again, and then on the weekend we are going on a trip to Lake Atitlan. Monday-building, Tuesday-hopefully helping in the Malnutrition Center. We booked a hostel for next week that is closer to the downtown. I have noticed that there aren’t really safety precautions here yet everyone seems to be safe. Everything is much smaller and slower and outdoor oriented. I would like to wander around the town and meet more people because they are all so interesting.

June 13th, 2015 10:00 pm

Yesterday I was too tired to write so I will start there. (About June 12th:)  We had these pancakes folded over fruit for breakfast which was yummy. It was day two of the house building and we finished the floors, roof, and walls. For the first half of the day, we sawed and nailed. After lunch we made cement and more cement for the floor and carried it in. The people helping my mom and I build are four workers from Nuestros Ahjidados. Jessica: the leader of the malnutrition center (Casa Jackson), Luis: a college student majoring in accounting, Javier: a college student and in charge of the donations to the program, and Hector Hugo, our guide. Hector is a house building machine and did more than all of us combined. He told me that he has built two hundred and sixty of these houses in his life time. I brought bubbles to the kids in the neighborhood and they loved them. They kept telling me which colors of bottles that I should bring next time I came. One little boy held my hand and got me to pick him up whenever I was free. My name to them was “gringa”. The mother we are building for has to work on Monday when we will finish the house, so we spoke with her briefly on this day. She cried and explained that it was a dream to have this house for her family. It was an explainable moment which made me want to build a thousand houses for these types of families. The house is nice, sturdy, waterproof, but smaller than my bedroom at home. A little boy said “Now I can blow on the wall and it won’t fall down!” We returned home in the back of the pickup, which I’m starting to get used to. The French people at our home, Pablo and Anabella, came home later than usual and the seminarians stayed out with friends. Ivan came home late as well because the rain made the trip home from his college hours longer. He gets up at 3:30-4 am to go to school in Guatemala City every day. We fell asleep at eight o’ clock to the sound of rain…falling in to the room next to us because it didn’t have a roof… which is normal here.  (About June 13th:) At 8 am we left for Lake Atitlan with Hector, another guide, and another group. The other group contained a Spanish teacher (Amanda), cousins (Shelby and Carly), and a girl with her mom (Olivia and Jennifer.)  Guatemalan roads are NOT fun if you get carsick! We stopped at Ixmiche, which are Mayan Ruins, and took a tour. Then we continued on to Panahajel for lunch. I ate some overpriced spaghetti which killed me because everything here is so inexpensive, yet the trip chose this restaurant. Then we took a boat across the lake to a market but it poured the whole time so we went right back to change. Mom and I walked around on the streets here before dinner. The market was beautiful and I wish I could eat the fruit. There are many stray dogs, and about twenty were hovered by the dump eating. We bought cards from two boys who were selling their mothers’ work solely because they were so cute. The chocolate covered cookie packs are only 20c which is good and bad, so we had some more of those. Dinner was at Sunset Café, which I would highly recommend to anyone in Panahajel. My mom and I split burritos and a pina colada. Then we ordered chocolate cake but it was soaked in rum and I didn’t like it too much. There was a live band singing American songs in a Spanish accent and a good atmosphere.

June 14th, 2015 10:00 pm

We ate breakfast with the group we traveled with. The French toast was deep fried rather than cooked on a stove which was too filling. Then we drove to Chichicastenango to the market. It was the biggest I had seen, not that I had seen many. The amount of bracelets, bags, blankets, etc. that were being sold was crazy and I wonder if or how the sellers make a profit. Since everything is handmade, it must take so much time to make. I bought some bracelets and a cloth for my wall, and my mom got a notebook and a carved turtle. The prices were good because they will barter. Most or all of the natives in this city are indigenous Mayans. I noticed that older women wore traditional Mayan dress whereas the younger woman had started to wear American clothing. It’s interesting how the Mayans and other Spanish speaking Guatemalans live in harmony whereas every culture is separated in America. I wish that we could have spent more time at the market but we soon went to lunch. We ordered chips and offered them to Hector but it was apparent that he was not allowed to accept. They get paid the equivalent $350 a month. At home we went to Luna del Miel for dinner. Peach crepes are AMAZING! Night brought Bancopoly, the Spanish version of Monopoly. It is fascinating to play with English, French, and Spanish speaking people combined.

June 15th, 2015 9:00 pm

Monday- the last day of building the house. It was hot but all we had to do was paint today. We finished quickly and then it was time to present the home to the family. Since the mother was at work and the little kids were at school, only the oldest daughter and their Grandma were there. We stood in the house across from them while a translator helped us communicate. The girl didn’t speak much but the Grandma started to cry and thanked us for what we did for her daughter. The girl, Valoria, gave us individually addressed letters that she had written.  This is what it said in a rough English translation:

Hello ... Good afternoon Annie. Well first of all I greet you and wish you many blessings on you and your family. as well the reason for this letter is to thank you for all the effort that helped to come here to help with the construction of this beautiful house and also thank God you're okay because it had not been well for you had not been able to be these days here with us and share a smile. but the truth 're a great girl you are very cute . I 'll also never forget any of the group that came here with us because thanks to you we have a place where we can accommodate more good with . a hug. I say goodbye. the best in your work and Blessings in your family. thank you for everything and may God bless you and the family. Thanks Annie

It was a moment that I do not know how to explain with words. Knowing that our three days has literally changed the entire course of this family’s life is crazy, and an addicting feeling. It’s sad that this country is so rich in culture and life but the people are struggling like this. They deserve more because they work so hard. Saying goodbye to the family and the house was hard and strange because we will never see either of them again. At night, we napped, played French cards, and slept more. They had a celebration of our last night and it felt bittersweet.

June 16th, 2015 9:30 pm

Dora Luz made pancakes for breakfast and a carrot smoothie (0/10 do not recommend) but the pancakes were great. She is such a welcoming and sweet lady. I love how she speaks slowly in Spanish until I understand and always greets me when she sees me. Her husband Victor does not know English, so he is quieter but still friendly. I would definitely recommend this host family to anyone and everyone and I hope that I can return to them someday as well. Hector picked us up for Casa Jackson at 8 am. I played with the oldest girl who is four years old all morning. She strives for attention in a room filled with babies so it is hard for her to win. We read a lot and started to memorize the book and repeat it back to me which is a good step towards reading. For lunch we had meat lasagna and Dora Luz felt so bad because she had forgotten that I was a vegetarian. I just felt bad about how bad she felt! We returned to Casa Jackson and I took care of Oliver. He is so little and quiet. He sadly has a golf ball sized hernia which makes him fussy while he is trying to fall asleep because he is in pain. I hope that he gets help soon. My mom worked with Christian who has no muscle tone and seems to be a little autistic. We think this because he shook the same toy for about an hour and it is noticeable in his eyes. He is a quiet, beautiful baby who needs someone to help him build muscle, as do many other babies there. We attended a closing ceremony for the program and received a necklace and a hat. It was an ironic dinner because they had warned us heavily, “Do NOT eat lettuce in this country”. Well, they fed us lettuce for dinner. This was our last day in the homestay so we packed up our stuff and said goodbye. I am glad that I have the memory of the people staying there to take with me. We walked our suitcases to Hotel Casa Rustica and checked in. It is a hostel so our room was small and we had to walk to a shared bathroom and shower. After a long day, we went to bed.

June 17th, 2015 8:00 pm

Today was a relaxed day since we were on our own time now. We wandered around Antigua and explored the shops. For lunch we got pizza but I felt very sick (I’m guessing it was because of the lettuce) and so I returned to the hostel and slept most of the day.

June 18th, 2015 10:00 pm

I still felt sick today but tried to make the most of my last day. I had three meals of ice cream and sorbet because that’s all that I could stomach at this point. We hiked to a famous landmark called Cerro de la Cruz which is a beautiful cross that overlooks Antigua. The town square had a market as well so we walked around there as well. The city is so crowded because like I said earlier, it is outdoor oriented. All of the locals are hanging around outside. We walked down one street which was like a beggar corner that we have here in America. Although, this was different than the US in two ways. Number one, the beggars were disabled. They had unusually formed limbs, or mental disabilities. They actually needed help, unlike most of the ones we see in America. Number two, they do not make eye contact. They all sit with their head facing the ground and hold out a little bowl for donations. It was heartbreaking. We returned to the hostel and packed up for our departure.

June 19th, 2015 8:00 am

3:30 am came fast this morning and I sleepily rolled into the van that drove us to the Guatemala City airport. Customs was again lenient and we made our way to our flight. It was still dark when we took off so I could not see the aerial view of the city again. The sun rose and I could see that we were over the Gulf of Mexico. Hello America, we are back.

 I went into the trip hoping that I could impact as many people as I could while there. I feel as if I have helped and changed the lives of many people so in this way I have been successful. But what I didn’t realize when I started was that the people of Guatemala could teach me so much as well. I have taken with me the importance of family and happiness. I have learned about the simplicity of their lifestyle, and how down to earth they are. I understand now that I am the lucky one because I have enough money to travel to their country. I hope that I will be able to return as soon as possible.